Before today, the preferred option of lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit was to pass a law requiring the government to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline and hold a second referendum, should negotiations with the EU fail to result in a deal.
Those legal moves — cemented at a highly unusual display of opposition unity in the office of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday — were due to begin when Parliament returns from its annual summer break on September 3.
With a friend in House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, the anti-no-deal brigade planned to block the traditional three-week break for the main parties’ annual conferences, which was due to begin around September 14. Time was on their side, they believed.
But now they’ve got just a handful of days to engineer the required legislation before the suspension approved by the Queen — which cannot be voted down — takes effect.
That could force them to fall back on Plan B — a vote of no-confidence in the government. The trouble is, for that to succeed, they need Conservative lawmakers to vote against their own party, which was always thought to be a tall order. No surprise, then, to hear all the howls of “constitutional outrage.”
But is it really so outrageous? British governments usually arrange for a new parliamentary session to begin every year. And former Prime Minister Theresa May allowed the previous session to drag on, as she repeatedly attempted to persuade stubborn lawmakers to pass her beleaguered Brexit deal.
Johnson’s plan is for Parliament to be wound up at the end of next week. A new session would begin on October 14 with the traditional State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech, when the monarch reads a text written by Downing Street that lays out the government’s legislative priorities. That’s typically followed by several days of parliamentary debate. And while Johnson has hitherto been happy to tear up the norms of British political life, this is a tradition that will suit him very well.
An EU Council summit is due to take place on October 17 and 18. If Johnson returns from this event brandishing a new Brexit deal, he will hope to ram it through Parliament in the two weeks left until Brexit day. And after that? A swift general election, riding the wave of Brexit triumph, to cement his authority?
But if negotiations with the EU fail and Johnson sets a path to no-deal, things could look very different. The trouble for his opponents is that, by this point, their room for maneuver would be severely limited.
Even if they could muster enough support to pass a vote of no confidence at that late stage, UK law sets out a two-week window for a new government to be formed, or a general election to be called. Meanwhile, the Brexit countdown clock would continue to tick.
That seems to be concentrating minds. Those who previously expressed skepticism about launching a confidence vote next week — before Johnson had time to seal a new deal with the EU — already seem emboldened. Dominic Grieve, a Conservative MP who resigned as attorney general under Theresa May, and who has been one of the leading critics of a no-deal Brexit in his party, told the BBC that a confidence vote next week is now more likely.
Perhaps that’s all part of Johnson’s plan — dare the no-dealers to show their hand. Because even if Johnson loses a confidence vote next week, he still holds all the cards. As Prime Minister he could simply ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament for the purposes of calling a general election on, say, November 1, allow Brexit to happen by default and defy opponents to stop him. (Quite what Buckingham Palace would have to say about that plan — which could more justifiably be called a constitutional outrage than today’s arrangements — is anyone’s guess.)
All in all, Johnson, seems very pleased with himself, pointing out that under his plan, Parliament will be sitting in the run-up to Brexit and the whole affair is perfectly in order.
Whatever happens, it’s clear that next week will be very bumpy indeed — and, as ever with Brexit, only the rashest of pundits would attempt to predict the outcome with any degree of certainty. Time to buckle up.